who, what, where ...
Ken Armstrong is an investigative reporter who’s worked in lots of places and written lots of stories. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper work; an Edgar Award for Scoreboard, Baby, a book he co-authored with Nick Perry; and the John Chancellor Award from Columbia University for lifetime achievement. In other words, he’s old.
WHO: Armstrong works at the Seattle Times and, when time allows, writes books. Wife Ramona Hattendorf is the government relations coordinator for the Washington State PTA. Son Emmett plays the upright bass. This is considered an “endangered instrument.” Lug one around and you’ll know why. Daughter Meghan believes her elementary school has too many rules. “Break one and they make you stand against the wall – and if someone else talks to you, they have to stand against the wall, too. Really.”
WHERE: Armstrong has worked at newspapers in Alamosa, Colorado; Twin Falls, Idaho; Escondido, California; New York City; Anchorage, Alaska; Newport News, Virginia; Chicago and Seattle. Two of these papers no longer exist. That Armstrong worked there is coincidental. He’s also been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton.
WHAT: At the Chicago Tribune Armstrong investigated misconduct by prosecutors, coerced confessions, and fault lines riddling the systems of capital punishment in Illinois and Texas. In Seattle he dug into hundreds of illegally sealed court files and the community's complicity in protecting wayward athletes. In Idaho he wrote about a woman who mooned the police.
WHEN: Armstrong grew up in Ohio, France, Germany, New Mexico and Indiana. He graduated from Purdue in 1985; dropped out of law school at the University of Chicago in 1986; and dropped out of the Peace Corps in Mauritania, West Africa, in 1987. In years past, journalism welcomed dropouts. He went into journalism.
WHY: Because newspaper stories make a difference. In Washington, stories with Michael Berens about the MRSA pathogen spurred new laws requiring surprise hospital inspections and the screening of high-risk patients. In Virginia, stories with Bob Evans about a botched sting operation resulted in the police chief being fired and nine other officers getting disciplined. In Chicago, a death-penalty series with Steve Mills helped prompt the Illinois governor to suspend executions and empty Death Row. Five inmates profiled in that series were later freed; they were pardoned based on innocence or had the charges against them dropped.
HOW: At the Chicago Tribune, Armstrong fashioned a set of queries that helped turn up 381 homicide convictions nationally that had been reversed because prosecutors concealed evidence suggesting innocence or knowingly used false evidence. One query, entered into a legal database, was:
Date aft 1962 and (homicide or murder! or manslaughter) and (brady pre/ 3 maryland) or lexcite (373 U.S. 83) or ((napue pre/ 3 illinois) or lexcite (360 U.S. 264) or (giglio pre/ 3 united states) or lexcite (405 U.S. 150)) or ((use! / 3 perjur! or false) or (correct! / 3 perjur! or false) or (uncorrect! / 3 perjur! or false)).
Abby Mann, a movie producer and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, flirted with making a movie about the work that Armstrong and Mills did in Chicago on the death penalty. He invited them to a fancy hotel suite, turned on a tape recorder and said: Tell me how you did it. Armstrong told him: We pulled all of these records, file after file … we filled in all of these boxes on a hand-drawn spreadsheet, box after box … we tallied up all our findings, number after number … Mann’s eyes glazed over. His mind drifted away. It drifted away to a place where reporters do gloriously cinematic things, like hold clandestine meetings with code-named sources in shadowy parking garages. The movie never got made. Had Mann stayed longer, Armstrong would have told him about his queries of legal databases. Maybe that would have made the difference.